When we think about astrology, most of us will immediately think about the twelve signs of the zodiac: Aries, Taurus, Gemini, Cancer, Leo, Virgo, Libra, Scorpio, Sagittarius, Capricorn, Aquarius, and Pisces. When we say someone is an Aries, for example, that means they were born when the Sun was in Aries, either the month-long period of time after the Vernal Equinox (Western Astrology) or the period when the Sun is passing through the constellation of Aries (Vedic Astrology). However, in Vedic Astrology one is often labelled by their Ascendant sign, and in this case someone would be called an Aries when at the moment of birth the constellation Aries was rising on the eastern horizon. The Ascendant, Sun, and Moon placements among the twelve signs of the zodiac are very important in our birth charts, but in Vedic Astrology there is another system of constellations called the Lunar Zodiac or Lunar Mansions.
First, some Astronomy: To understand the Lunar Zodiac, we first have to understand the Moon’s cycles. There are two main cycles of the Moon, or months. From here on Earth we can easily see what is called the Lunar, or Synodic, Month. A Lunar Month is the period from one New Moon to the next New Moon, or one Full Moon to the next Full Moon, and it lasts 29 days, 12 hours, and 44 minutes. It takes the Moon a little more than one revolution around the Earth to complete a Lunar Month.
The other main cycle of the Moon is called the Sidereal Month. The Sidereal Month is based on the position of the Moon in respect to the background of the stars or constellations [Latin: sidus, sideris], and lasts 27 days, 7 hours, and 43 minutes. The Moon begins and ends this month in the same position in the sky, in the same constellation, and at the same degree. For example, if the Moon is at 10 degrees Leo at this moment, in 27 d, 7 h, 43 m it will again be at 10 degrees Leo beginning a new “month.”
Just as Vedic Astrology is based on the Sidereal Zodiac, the Lunar Zodiac (or Nakshatras, which also means star, constellation, asterism…) is based on the Sidereal Month of the Moon. The Moon passes through approximately one Nakshatra per Earth day, and thus there are 27 Nakshatras. I have read that in very ancient times there were once 28, but somewhere down the line the sages must have determined that 27 were better. When we overlap the Solar and Lunar Zodiacs, we can see that there are two and a quarter Nakshatras that cover the period of each of the twelve solar signs.
And the Astrology? Studying the Moon and the Nakshatras is very important in Vedic Astrology. In one’s birth chart, the Nakshatras influence the solar sign they are in and the planets that are in the Nakshatras. The rulers of the Nakshatras as well as the ruling Deities of the Nakshatras also have influences on the planets residing there. Most important when looking at a birth chart is the Nakshatra that the Moon and Ascendant are in. The Moon’s Nakshatra can change its nature and can alter the character of the natal chart. The influences of the Nakshatras are subtle but deep.
There are three additional layers of interpretation. Each Nakshatra is divided up into four Padas (feet), each with its own ruler adding more subtle layers of influence onto one’s personality. The Nakshatras are also categorized according to the four functions or motivations of life: Artha (material action, work), Kama (desires and passions), Dharma (righteous action, duty), and Moksha (liberation). The Nakshatras also have the attributes of the three Gunas: Sattva (purity), Rajas (action), and Tamas (darkness or sluggishness).
Besides greatly influencing one’s birth chart, the Moon’s Nakshatra is used to determine the Dasha periods, which along with the Moon are used to advise about the future, make predictions, and produce horoscopes. The Nakshatras are also used to do Electional Astrology, which is used to pick auspicious dates and plan important events such as weddings.
The layers of interpretation are many! Now that I’ve briefly introduced the Nakshatras, I will soon begin to go through the Lunar Zodiac to discuss each of the 27 Nakshatras in more detail.
All the Nakshatras, Vedic (Sidereal) Zodiac signs, and more can be found in my book, Shedding Light on Jyotisha, Vedic Astrology For Beginners.